The best good Man, with the worst natur’d Muse

Two years later, an addendum to an image from Dickens’ Christmas Carol – Like a bad lobster in a dark cellar. There I’d mentioned a similar image in a quote from John Randolph – “He is a man of splendid abilities but utterly corrupt. He shines and stinks, like a rotten mackerel by moonlight.” Today I have either a background source for Randolph or – more likely – a third independent observation of the same kind. While reading the works of John Wilmot last week I found the following line in his An Allusion to Horace:

For pointed Satyrs, I wou’d Buckhurst choose,
The best good Man, with the worst natur’d Muse.

I, of course, follow a clue to a man with the ‘worst natur’d Muse’ and find that Buckhurst (Charles Sackville, Lord Buckhurst) was indeed savage in wit. Here is only one of his attacks on Catherine Sedley, a sometime mistress of the future James II:


Tell me, Dorinda, why so gay,
Why such embroidery, fringe and lace,
Can any dresses find a way
To stop th’ approaches of decay,
And mend a ruined face? …

So have I seen in larder dark
Of veal a lucid loin,
Replete with many a brilliant spark,
As wise philosophers remark,
At once both stink and shine.

At non formosa est, at non bene culta puella

Ovid Amores 3.7 (in the Loeb text and translation), the poem behind yesterday’s The Imperfect Enjoyment. Love Ovid though I do, I find Rochester’s reworking more effective than the original – but then Ovid and Rochester are playing with different poetics so a strict counterweighing is misguided.

Was she then not beautiful, not attractively groomed, not longed for a thousand times in my dreams? And yet when I held her in my arms, I was unhappily limp and could not perform, but lay a shameful burden on an idle bed; but though I was eager for it, and she no less, I could not use the pleasurable part of my languid loins. Her ivory arms, gleaming more brightly than Thracian snow, she cast about my neck and with eager tongue implanted wanton kisses, and lasciviously slid her limbs beneath mine. She whispered endearments, calling me master, and all the natural rapturous utterances as well. But my body, as if drugged with chill hemlock, was paralysed and failed to achieve my intent. I lay like a dead tree-trunk, a mere spectacle, a useless weight, and it was unclear whether I was body or ghost.

What kind of old age lies in store for me, if indeed one does, when my youth lives not up to its full measure? Ah, I am ashamed to be my age: what is the point of being young and male? My girl-friend found me neither young nor male. She left the bed as chaste as the devout priestess who rises to tend Vesta’s undying fire and as a sister leaves the side of the dear brother whose respect she commands. Yet not long ago I satisfied blonde Chlide twice running with my attentions, thrice fair Pitho and thrice Libas; I remember Corinna’s asking from me and my supplying nine measures in one short night.

Was my body listless under the spell of Thessalian drugs? Was I the wretched victim of charms and herbs, or did a witch curse my name upon a red wax image and stick fine pins into the middle of the liver? When damned by charms the corn withers on the sterile stalk, and when a well is damned by charms, its water dries up; through incantations acorns drop from oaks and grapes from vines, and apples fall when no one has touched them. What prevents the cessation of my energy being due to magical practices? It is perhaps from that source that my powers became inadequate. Shame also played a part, for my very shame at what happened inhibited me: that was a second cause of my trouble.

But what a lovely girl did I just gaze upon and touch, and touch as closely as her garments do! Her touch could have made Nestor young again and given Tithonus a virility belying his years. Such a one had I in my grasp, though she no man in hers. What on earth can I now ask for in my future prayers? I also fancy the mighty gods regret offering me a boon which I so shamefully treated. Yes, I desired admittance—and won it; to kiss her—and did; to be in her bed—and was. What did I gain from such great fortune, what did I gain from a kingship I never exercised? Nothing, except possess wealth like a rich miser. So thirsts the betrayer of secretsa in midstream and has fruit he can never enjoy. Does anyone leave a pretty girl at dawn in a state permitting him forthwith to approach the sacred gods?

But perhaps it was not an alluring girl I left? Perhaps she did not lavish exquisite kisses on me or use every resource to rouse me? Not a bit! That girl’s allure could have moved tough oak, hard adamant, and unfeeling stone: certainly she could have moved anyone alive and man; but then I was neither alive nor man, as I had been. What would be the use of Phemius singing to deaf ears? What profit is a painting to blind Thamyras?

And yet what joys had I not conceived in the privacy of my mind, what ways of love not arranged in my imagination? But my body lay in disgrace as though already dead, more jaded than the rose of yesterday. (Now, too late, just look at it, it is well and strong, now clamouring for business and the fray. Lie down there, you shamefaced creature, worthless part of me: I have been tricked by promises like this before. You deceive your master; through you I have been caught defenceless, and suffered a painful and humiliating reverse.)

Moreover my playmate did not refrain from applying her hand and gently coaxing it. But when she realised it would not get up and was lying down oblivious of her, she exclaimed: “Why do you insult me? Are you out of your mind? Who asked you to come to bed if you are not in the mood? Either some practitioner of Circe’s spells has been piercing a woollen figure of you and has you bewitched or you have come here exhausted from lovemaking elsewhere.” With that she leapt out of bed, wrapped in her ungirdled robe (and a pretty sight she was, as she tripped forth barefoot). And to stop the maids realising that she had not enjoyed me, she covered up my sorry performance by taking a bath.

At non formosa est, at non bene culta puella,
at, puto, non votis saepe petita meis!
hanc tamen in nullos tenui male languidus usus,
sed iacui pigro crimen onusque toro;
nec potui cupiens, pariter cupiente puella,
inguinis effeti parte iuvante frui.
illa quidem nostro subiecit eburnea collo
bracchia Sithonia candidiora nive,
osculaque inseruit cupida luctantia lingua
lascivum femori supposuitque femur,
et mihi blanditias dixit dominumque vocavit,
et quae praeterea publica verba iuvant.
tacta tamen veluti gelida mea membra cicuta
segnia propositum destituere meum;
truncus iners iacui, species et inutile pondus,
et non exactum, corpus an umbra forem.
Quae mihi ventura est, siquidem ventura, senectus,
cum desit numeris ipsa iuventa suis?
a, pudet annorum: quo me iuvenemque virumque?
nec iuvenem nec me sensit amica virum!
sic flammas aditura pias aeterna sacerdos
surgit et a caro fratre verenda soror.
at nuper bis flava Chlide, ter candida Pitho,
ter Libas officio continuata meo est;
exigere a nobis angusta nocte Corinnam
me memini numeros sustinuisse novem.
Num mea Thessalico languent devota veneno
corpora? num misero carmen et herba nocent,
sagave poenicea defixit nomina cera
et medium tenuis in iecur egit acus?
carmine laesa Ceres sterilem vanescit in herbam,
deficiunt laesi carmine fontis aquae,
ilicibus glandes cantataque vitibus uva
decidit, et nullo poma movente fluunt.
quid vetat et nervos magicas torpere per artes?
forsitan inpatiens fit latus inde meum.
huc pudor accessit: facti pudor ipse nocebat;
ille fuit vitii causa secunda mei.
At qualem vidi tantum tetigique puellam!
sic etiam tunica tangitur illa sua.
illius ad tactum Pylius iuvenescere possit
Tithonosque annis fortior esse suis.
haec mihi contigerat; sed vir non contigit illi.
quas nunc concipiam per nova vota preces?
credo etiam magnos, quo sum tam turpiter usus,
muneris oblati paenituisse deos.
optabam certe recipi—sum nempe receptus;
oscula ferre—tuli; proximus esse—fui.
quo mihi fortunae tantum? quo regna sine usu?
quid, nisi possedi dives avarus opes?
sic aret mediis taciti vulgator in undis
pomaque, quae nullo tempore tangat, habet.
a tenera quisquam sic surgit mane puella,
protinus ut sanctos possit adire deos?
Sed, puto, non blanda: non optima perdidit in me
oscula; non omni sollicitavit ope!
illa graves potuit quercus adamantaque durum
surdaque blanditiis saxa movere suis.
digna movere fuit certe vivosque virosque;
sed neque tum vixi nec vir, ut ante, fui.
quid iuvet, ad surdas si cantet Phemius aures?
quid miserum Thamyran picta tabella iuvat?
At quae non tacita formavi gaudia mente!
quos ego non finxi disposuique modos!
nostra tamen iacuere velut praemortua membra
turpiter hesterna languidiora rosa—
quae nunc, ecce, vigent intempestiva valentque,
nunc opus exposcunt militiamque suam.
quin istic pudibunda iaces, pars pessima nostri?
sic sum pollicitis captus et ante tuis.
tu dominum fallis; per te deprensus inermis
tristia cum magno damna pudore tuli.
Hanc etiam non est mea dedignata puella
molliter admota sollicitare manu;
sed postquam nullas consurgere posse per artes
inmemoremque sui procubuisse videt,
“quid me ludis?” ait, “quis te, male sane, iubebat
invitum nostro ponere membra toro?
aut te traiectis Aeaea venefica lanis
devovet, aut alio lassus amore venis.”
nec mora, desiluit tunica velata soluta
—et decuit nudos proripuisse pedes!
—neve suae possent intactam scire ministrae,
dedecus hoc sumpta dissimulavit aqua.



The Imperfect Enjoyment

John Wilmot is what Henry Miller would like to have been.

If I weren’t rusticating away from my books this long weekend I’d include the Ovid poem – Amores 3.7 – that gave rise to this and several similarly themed pieces.

Naked she lay, clasped in my longing arms,
I filled with love, and she all over charms;
Both equally inspired with eager fire,
Melting through kindness, flaming in desire.
With arms, legs, lips close clinging to embrace,
She clips me to her breast, and sucks me to her face.
Her nimble tongue, love’s lesser lightning, played
Within my mouth, and to my thoughts conveyed
Swift orders that I should prepare to throw
The all-dissolving thunderbolt below.
My fluttering soul, sprung with the pointed kiss,
Hangs hovering o’er her balmy brinks of bliss.
But whilst her busy hand would guide that part
Which should convey my soul up to her heart,
In liquid raptures I dissolve all o’er,
Melt into sperm, and spend at every pore.
A touch from any part of her had done ’t:
Her hand, her foot, her very look’s a cunt.
    Smiling, she chides in a kind murmuring noise,
And from her body wipes the clammy joys,
When, with a thousand kisses wandering o’er
My panting bosom, “Is there then no more?”
She cries. “All this to love and rapture’s due;
Must we not pay a debt to pleasure too?”
    But I, the most forlorn, lost man alive,
To show my wished obedience vainly strive:
I sigh, alas! and kiss, but cannot swive.
Eager desires confound my first intent,
Succeeding shame does more success prevent,
And rage at last confirms me impotent.
Ev’n her fair hand, which might bid heat return
To frozen age, and make cold hermits burn,
Applied to my dear cinder, warms no more
Than fire to ashes could past flames restore.
Trembling, confused, despairing, limber, dry,
A wishing, weak, unmoving lump I lie.
This dart of love, whose piercing point, oft tried,
With virgin blood ten thousand maids has dyed,
Which nature still directed with such art
That it through every cunt reached every heart—
Stiffly resolved, ’twould carelessly invade
Woman or man, nor ought its fury stayed:
Where’er it pierced, a cunt it found or made—
Now languid lies in this unhappy hour,
Shrunk up and sapless like a withered flower.
    Thou treacherous, base deserter of my flame,
False to my passion, fatal to my fame,
Through what mistaken magic dost thou prove
So true to lewdness, so untrue to love?
What oyster-cinder-beggar-common whore
Didst thou e’er fail in all thy life before?
When vice, disease, and scandal lead the way,
With what officious haste doest thou obey!
Like a rude, roaring hector in the streets
Who scuffles, cuffs, and justles all he meets,
But if his king or country claim his aid,
The rakehell villain shrinks and hides his head;
Ev’n so thy brutal valor is displayed,
Breaks every stew, does each small whore invade,
But when great Love the onset does command,
Base recreant to thy prince, thou dar’st not stand.
Worst part of me, and henceforth hated most,
Through all the town a common fucking post,
On whom each whore relieves her tingling cunt
As hogs on gates do rub themselves and grunt,
Mayst thou to ravenous chancres be a prey,
Or in consuming weepings waste away;
May strangury and stone thy days attend;
May’st thou never piss, who didst refuse to spend
When all my joys did on false thee depend.
   And may ten thousand abler pricks agree
   To do the wronged Corinna right for thee.

Foeda est in coitu et brevis voluptas

Today, a comparison of translations and adaptations, plus a possible personal cryptomnesiac cribbing. I started The Complete Poems of John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester (ed. David Vieth) earlier and ran across an adaptation of one of Petronius’s more memorable poems.

First, Petronius’ original (poem 28 in the Loeb text) with the Loeb rendering and – since the Loeb’s is more meh than normal – my own five minute effort afterwards. Neither effort does near justice to the playfully allusive legerdemain of the original but together they can give some idea (and, incidentally, I believe there’s a new Loeb edition of Petronius scheduled for later this year so maybe that one will improve the situation).

Foeda est in coitu et brevis voluptas
et taedet Veneris statim peractae.
Non ergo ut pecudes libidinosae
caeci protinus irruamus illuc
(nam languescit amor peritque flamma);
sed sic sic sine fine feriati
et tecum iaceamus osculantes.
Hic nullus labor est ruborque nullus:
hoc iuvit, iuvat et diu iuvabit;
hoc non deficit incipitque semper.

The pleasure of the act of love is gross and brief, and love once consummated brings loathing after it. Let us then not rush blindly thither straightway like lustful beasts, for love sickens and the flame dies down; but even so, even so, let us keep eternal holiday, and lie with thy lips to mine. No toil is here and no shame: in this, delight has been, and is, and long shall be; in this there is no diminution, but a beginning everlastingly.

Filthy and brief is the pleasure taken in sex
and passion carried to its end straightaway disgusts.
And so let us not like rutting beasts
blind and headlong rush to the end
(for desire withers and the flame dies);
But let us lie like this, just like this,
playing idly without end and kissing.
Here is no exertion and no reason to turn red:
This has pleased, does please, and long will please;
This does not cease and ever is just beginning.

Now Ben Jonson’s translation – which I remembered existed but haven’t read in years, similarity of final lines notwithstanding:

Doing, a filthy pleasure is, and short;
And done, we straight repent us of the sport:
Let us not then rush blindly on unto it,
Like lustful beasts, that only know to do it:
For lust will languish, and that heat decay.
But thus, thus, keeping endless holiday,
Let us together closely lie and kiss,
There is no labour, nor no shame in this;
This hath pleased, doth please, and long will please; never
Can this decay, but is beginning ever.

And finally, John Wilmot’s adaptation – which carries the improbable title ‘The Platonic Lady

I could love thee till I die,
Would’st thou love me modestly,
And ne’er press, whilst I live,
For more than willingly I would give:
Which should sufficient be to prove
I’d understand the art of love.

I hate the thing is called enjoyment:
Besides it is a dull employment,
It cuts off all that’s life and fire
From that which may be termed desire;
Just like the bee whose sting is gone
Converts the owner to a drone.

I love a youth will give me leave
His body in my arms to wreathe;
To press him gently, and to kiss;
To sigh, and look with eyes that wish
For what, if I could once obtain,
I would neglect with flat disdain.

I’d give him liberty to toy
And play with me, and count it joy.
Our freedom should be full complete,
And nothing wanting but the feat.
Let’s practice, then, and we shall prove
These are the only sweets of love.